by Maestro Joseph Rescigno
Joseph Rescigno returns to the Florentine Opera Company to conduct Tosca, November 20, 21 and 22, 2009.
Tosca and Tabarro are probably Puccini’s most veristic operas. That is, his most violent and gritty. In La Bohème, Madama Butterfly, and Suor Angelica, his writing tends to be more Impressionistic and the stories a bit more sentimental. In Manon Lescaut and Fanciulla del West, the orchestration is denser and the stories, while certainly dramatic, are less savage. Gianni Schicchi, Turandot, and La Rondine are atypical of most of his output—a comedy, a Chinese pageant based on a commedia del arte play, and an operetta somewhat in the Viennese manner.
For good reason, we remember the brass in Tosca. But the exquisite tone painting of an awakening Rome that opens Act III is as delicate and gentle as any romantic French canvas. Indeed, once again, we can see that Puccini was born [1858-1924] within a few years of both Richard Strauss [1864-1949] and Claude Debussy [1862-1918]. Yet, he is never an imitator—any more than he is an imitator of Giuseppe Verdi and Vincenzo Bellini, firmly rooted as he is in that heritage. He sounds like Puccini and nobody else.
In fact, in Tosca, Puccini gives us considerable breadth: In Act I alone, we have Angelotti fleeing for his life from the secret police, a love scene with some foreshadowing of Floria Tosca’s fatal jealousy, the alter boys horsing around, and a nearly full picture of the villain Scarpia.
With Scarpia, this opera includes the dilemma encountered in more than one play or film: that the villain can end up seeming the most engaging, or at least most interesting. And he is interesting, with music to match. Baron Scarpia is an astute, if evil, manipulator – completely at ease with his power. Scarpia’s persona can seem almost elegant while he wreaks havoc in the lives of others.
Floria Tosca herself seems to be something of a break from the classic, self-sacrificing Puccini heroine. This is true only up to a point, though. It is a mistake to portray her as a street-fighter. She is a delicate and elegant lady, driven to extremes by outside forces. While we think of Puccini heroines as fighting fatal diseases and the despair of abandonment by thoughtless and feckless lovers, Floria Tosca is an innocent with the forces of a police state arrayed against her.
The greatest challenge in doing Tosca for me, then, is to balance the violent, driving music (beginning of Act I and much of the music while Scarpia is onstage) so that it has propulsion without excessive weight. To balance the violence of Scarpia, Puccini gives us the flirtatious sweetness of the Act I love duet and the poetic calm of the opening pages of Act III. It is tempting to lapse into sentimentality with these breaks in the tension and that, too, is a mistake.
The first Tosca in my memory is from the late Fifties at the Metropolitan Opera, with Maria Callas in the title role and Dimitri Mitropoulos conducting. What I remember is a performance of considerable energy and drive. My favorite recording—and perhaps the greatest opera recording I know of is, also, with Maria Callas joined by Giuseppe di Stefano and Tito Gobbi, with Victor de Sabata conducting. All three singers are in their prime on this recording and, again, the work has tremendous drive.